Again, trying to avoid spoilers here, but looking at the filmmakers is instructive. The film's got a script from Joss Whedon, which should tell you something, and then you've got Drew Goddard, a regular in the Whedon and J.J. Abrams writers stable. In other words, expect genre deconstruction and mysterious folk lurking in the shadows. Or something.
It's certainly not a perfect film, but it's probably the best thing I've seen so far this year, and the most fun too. Unfortunately, it's hard to talk about it for fear of spoiling. It's not a movie that relies on a single twist or anything and you can tell from the movie's title what's coming. Heck, it's not so much a title as it is a premise: kids go to a cabin in the woods. Guess what happens next? But Whedon and Goddard make the sub-genre feel fresh in a way you don't see very often. Again, it's not reliant on a big surprise, but rather a series of small twists and tweaks, starting from the first scene in the film, none of which are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but which build upon each other to create an effective cumulative result. Again, if you're a fan of horror movies, you need to see this.
Well, that's probably enough trying to skirt around the details. Spoilers aho, fun ahoy! So very quickly, yes, there are five kids (each conforming to a stereotypical archetype like "The Fool" and "The Virgin") that go to spend the weekend in a remote cabin in the woods. And yes, they are attacked by a family of redneck zombies after they read some latin aloud whilst investigating a creepy basement. But the most interesting thing about the movie is that the kids are basically being manipulated by some sort of shadowy organization; an effort lead by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. At first, this organization seems like the villain, but it seems that this ritual destruction of youth at the cabin is actually necessary to forestall an even bigger disaster - the rising of the Lovecraftian elder gods.
Of course, the kids don't play along quite as expected, and while first half or two thirds of the movie are pretty conventional, the shit really hits the fan in the last third. When we first find out what the kids were facing (redneck zombies!), I was a little disappointed... but then you get that last sequence of the film, where everything just goes crazy. Horror fans will delight in all of the references (throughout the whole film, but especially in the climactic sequences). Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite stick the dismount. It's going fantastically for a while, but then Sigourney Weaver shows up and delivers some clunky exposition that didn't quite hit the right note for me. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't ruin the movie or anything, and the ultimate outcome of the film is fine.
To use the gymnastics metaphor, this movie is like a routine that starts off conventionally, well performed, but nothing we haven't seen before. But then, about two thirds of the way through, some really amazingly acrobatic stuff starts happening, leading to a huge dismount. The movie doesn't stumble, but it's not an entirely clean landing either. It's the sort of thing where the audience at home is exhilarated by the performance, but the announcer says something like "Ohhh, that's gonna cost them a tenth of a point" or something absurd. Still very high scores and everyone cheers, but not quite a perfect 10.
There's a ton of metaphorical possibilities with this movie though. For example, Devin Faraci effectively argues that the Whitford and Jenkins characters are actually the heroes... or maybe anti-heroes of the piece, not the kids:
That's the real twist of the movie. After all, you know right from the start that the events in the cabin are being controlled. But the assumption is that this is something insidious, something evil. I've seen a lot of reviews that utterly misunderstand the truth about Downstairs. The truth is that these guys are saving the world. Once a year they engage in a sacrifice that saves the world. It's terrible, and you may have issues with how they go about it - especially the way they blow off steam partying and betting - but the reality is that there are dark forces that needed to be contained, and this is how it's done.Whedon and Goddard have apparently often compared themselves (in the roles of writer/director) to the Whitford and Jenkins characters (the ones manipulating the kids in the movie). If they're the filmmakers, then the elder gods could be the audience - us. Or you could say that the elder gods are the studio execs and we're the kids being slaughtered. You could go the more serious rout and claim that the young are being sacrificed at the behest of their elders.
In any case, there's lots to chew on here, especially in the realm of media and the audience relationship with creators. It calls to mind a lot of other films, while still being distinct and worthwhile on its own. I'm think of The Truman Show or maybe even Rubber, which are a little more explicit in their exploration of audiences, but still quite effective.
Many of the questions that are called to mind in this movie surround the tropes and conventions of horror, which you could argue have become stale and are somewhat disturbing in and of themselves. I mean, why do we enjoy watching the young get slaughtered by monsters? Seeing this movie now also paints The Hunger Games in a less flattering light, as that book/movie never really worked for me. I could tell it wanted me to be asking these same questions, but I was never immersed enough in the world to care. The Cabin in the Woods has a lot of things that I'd think would pull me out of the story too, but they never really did. I mean, the logistics of capturing, storing, and maintaining the monsters would be pretty absurd, as is the notion of the "Red Button" (though I appreciated the touch of the two step activation system - it's not a button anyone would ever want to press, but if you're going to build it, it's comforting to know that they made it safe enough that it wouldn't be accidentally triggered!)
I could probably ramble on and on about the symbolic interpretations of the movie or all of the references, but I'll just end with a few of my favorites:
- Badass Digest has a wonderful screencap of the white board that lists out all of potential monsters. We get to see a lot of these things in the final third of the movie, but just the list of names is brilliant in itself. When I first saw the movie I was straining to see as many as possible. The ones that jumped out at me upon viewing were the Deadites (a reference to Evil Dead II) and, simply, "Kevin" (I don't know if that's just there to be random, or if it's some sort of reference to We Need to Talk About Kevin - a movie I haven't seen, so I have no idea if this even makes sense). But having a clear snapshot of the board is awesome; there are so many great options on the board. So many questions (and it's good that they're not answered too). I have to wonder why some of the options weren't chosen in the betting pool - what's so wrong with Reptilius or The Dismemberment Goblins that no one chose them in the pool? And I love the ones that are sorta duplicates, but have been made distinctions anyway. The one mentioned in the film is Zombies vs. Redneck Zombie Family, but I think my favorite on the board is Witches vs. Sexy Witches.
- On one of the podcasts I listen to, someone (I think Joe from Extra Hot Great) lamented that all of the monsters were generic versions of things that have more specific versions. For instance it's clear that the "Hell Lord" (aka Fornicus, Lord of Bondage) is a reference to Hellraiser, but for obvious reasons, the filmmakers would never be able to afford to buy up the rights to all of the referenced monsters (or representations thereof that we would recognize). Personally, I love that they're not the exact representations or names we recognize. I think it would have been kinda annoying to see Pinhead show up in this movie. The movie clearly derives all the monsters from somewhere, but there's still at least an element of originality at play here that would be lost if they used existing properties.
- I think one of my favorite parts of the movie was their hilarious take on Japanese Horror, and I would have loved to have seen more than the short glimpses of the other (failed) sacrifices around the world.
- Though not explicitly referenced and clearly not exactly comparable, did anyone else get a Cube vibe from the whole facility?
- I really like the breadth and specificity of some of the references. There are big movies and small movies, old classics, old B-movies, and newer fare too. I mean, Angry Molesting Tree (clearly a reference to The Evil Dead (the first one)), Snowman (which could be for pure absurdity value, but then, there is Jack Frost), Dolls (basically from The Strangers), Twins (presumably a reference to the Grady twins from The Shining). And then there are even some original addtions - the "Dragonbat" seems to be unique to this film.